December 03, 2015
(++++) VIRTUOSI AT WORK
No Yelling! “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 32. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Zits Apocalypse: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Playtime: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
One wonderful thing about watching virtuoso performers is seeing how easy they make everything look. The great violinists, pianists, conductors – all seem to go through motions that, you might think, you too could duplicate easily enough (“that conductor is just waving a baton, after all!”). But try anything requiring virtuosic skill, if you ever have the chance, and be prepared to be, if not humiliated or at least embarrassed, very quickly educated in what makes great performers virtuosi and you – well, you. As with music, so with art: “my six-year-old could do that” quickly becomes “how in the world did he get that effect?” if you, much less your six-year-old, should ever try to do the same thing. And comic-strip art? Well, it’s just black-and-white drawings, really, exaggerations and simplifications done with a few lines here and there, and jokes that, especially when taken from real-life situations, pretty much write themselves.
Oh, yeah? Try it sometime. Try for the pacing, the characterization, the integral words-and-pictures communication, the humor and occasional pathos and frequent perfectly reasonable bizarrerie of strips such as Baby Blues and Zits, and then come back humbled and thoroughly apologetic for thinking you could pull off something like this just because you have the artistic talent of, say, Scott Adams or Stephan Pastis (no denigration intended – well, maybe just a little). “Family” comic strips have been around just about as long as have comic strips themselves, but Baby Blues and Zits are at such a high level, and stay there so consistently, that their sheer virtuosity is a source of amazement time after time. And so it is in the latest collections of both strips, which share almost nothing in terms of artistic style but a great deal in terms of perception of what modern families endure, surely thanks in large part to the fact that Jerry Scott writes them both (and long may he continue doing so). Both new collections include comments by Scott and artists (and they are artists) Rick Kirkman (Baby Blues) and Jim Borgman (Zits); and while the comments are not up to the level of the writing within the strips themselves, they are delightfully informative. At one point, for example, Kirkman draws attention to the specific Baby Blues strip in which baby Wren’s hair has its own “growth spurt. She more than doubled her three hairs since her last appearance.” And Borgman, commenting on a Sunday Zits strip in which the huge middle panel has Jeremy getting ready for school so quickly that his multiple activities occur outside the space/time continuum, notes, “This middle panel is pretty much what we live for.” As for Scott, he comments of one Baby Blues character, “Trent is looking more menacing as he gets older. He’s even making me nervous, and I invented him.” And he notes the sort of thing he lives for in Zits plotting: “The bigger Mom’s frustration with Jeremy, the more I like it. The poor woman.”
None of the comments would really matter if the strips themselves weren’t so good, so consistently. But they are; they are. In both strips, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (totality > words + art, for those of a mathematical inclination). No Yelling! includes, for example, a wonderful sequence in which ultra-boy Hammie meets a girl who looks just like him, named Sammie (what else?), whose favorite things are “video games, mixed martial arts, and driving my sister crazy.” Hammie explains that his are “the same, but in reverse order” – and in the next strip, when Zoe sees Hammie and Sammie together and has an ultimate-freaked-out reaction, it is easy to understand Hammie’s preferences. Things actually go better when Zoe and Hammie are at odds: at one point he claims that she ruined his favorite comic book because “she liked it,” which leads Kirkman to remark wryly, “Ah, welcome to the real world, Hammie.” How real? Well, an outstanding Sunday strip featuring what Kirkman calls “the oddest panel I’ve ever drawn” shows Wanda’s face as seen through the many holes in an old pair of Darryl’s underwear that he refuses to throw out because it’s his favorite – things don’t get much realer than that. Hammie’s uncertainty about how to open a letter from Grandma – “Where do you double-click it?” – is at the same level. Baby Blues has scenes that every parent will recognize, such as the one in which Zoe demands back a toy she gave Hammie because “I didn’t think he was going to have so much fun with it,” and the one in which Wanda worries about Hammie playing football because “it terrifies me to imagine a bunch of little boys running around smashing into each other,” while Darryl points out that to him, “that’s a selling point.” Figuring out how to pace these scenes, though, and just what dialogue to include, what to show and what not to show, how many points to make verbally and how many visually – that’s virtuosity.
And Zits has plenty of it, too. Connie, Jeremy’s too-involved mom, cannot come up with a theme she likes for Jeremy’s prom, so father Walt suggests “Libidos in Tuxedos.” Connie does not exactly react favorably, but she has aces up her sleeve for such matters – or, rather, drones. Zits does keep up with technology: in one Sunday strip, showing Jeremy and Sara cuddled in a hammock, Sara comments on the pleasant sound of cicadas, and Jeremy realizes there aren’t any this year and says, “Call off your drone, Mom!” Not likely: in another Sunday sequence, Connie uses it to lift a sleeping Jeremy by the seat of his underwear and guide him to supervised lawn mowing, trash-taking-out and shopping-bag-carrying – and as so often in Zits, it is hard to say which is funnier here: the concept or the illustrations. Borgman brings a delightful sense of cartoon history into Zits from time to time, too, often paying tribute to Peanuts by having Jeremy use the roof outside his room for “big thoughts,” noting that “it’s our equivalent of Snoopy musing on top of his doghouse,” and also showing items bearing the same zigzag design as Charlie Brown’s sweater – as “quiet homage to one of the greats.” It is not all Peanuts, though: a strip showing Connie and Walt transformed into Fred and Wilma Flintstone is hilariously apt and makes its point even more, umm, pointedly than it otherwise would.
It is worth mentioning that there are forms and degrees of virtuosity, with Kirkman/Scott exemplifying one such and Scott/Borgman another. A third is that of Patrick McDonnell, whose sense of cartoon and art history is even more pervasive in Mutts than comic-strip history is in Baby Blues or Zits. In addition, McDonnell’s drawings often have a Zen-like stillness and elegance taken directly from Oriental art. One example in the new Mutts collection, Playtime, is a four-panel Sunday sequence using the old joke about it being so hot that characters melt. That is just what Earl the dog and Mooch the cat do as they sit beneath a tree, but the extreme stylization of the tree and the deliberate hyper-simplicity of the orange ball representing the sun, together with the design of the strip’s title, make the Oriental connection abundantly clear. McDonnell’s virtuosity shows itself in the apparently (only apparently) off-handed way he incorporates fine art and older comic-strip art into Mutts. One Sunday title panel, for instance, is a perfect take on Jeff Smith’s Bone, another Sunday pays homage to Otto Soglow’s The Little King, and still another Sunday offers an entire strip based on Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Nor are the references simply in the art: one daily strip has Mooch, beaned by an acorn thrown by the squirrels Bip and Bop, saying “Li’l angel” after he gets hit – leading a squirrel to comment, “Crazy Cat.” That Mutts strip encapsulates George Herriman’s famous Krazy Kat in three panels. Many readers will not pick up on these references at all, but it scarcely matters: they are integral to McDonnell’s work but generally not necessary for readers to understand in order to get the point of Mutts. Part of that point is visible through McDonnell’s frequent use of Earl and Mooch in the form of a yin/yang symbol; but in fact the two friends are, in many ways, not as opposite as all that: they cooperate as often as they go at things from differing directions. McDonnell mixes multi-panel strips that include small adventures (trying to hibernate, visiting a farm sanctuary, the recurring “Shelter Stories” strips advocating adoption by showing endearing animals waiting for their forever homes) with single-long-panel ones that go well beyond the bounds of other comics. One series on love includes quotes, one per day, from Lord Byron, Goethe, and Albert Camus. Another, “Mooch’s Dear Diary,” includes daily cat thoughts such as “Purr – when there’s nothing left to say.” And another offers one scene per day of a summer vacation beach trip. McDonnell’s sheer versatility is amazing. One week of strips has Bip and Bop interacting with (that is, hitting with acorns) Superman, The Flash, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Mister Fantastic and Batman – with final panels giving clues to (or reminders of) who the characters are. Another has the little girl, Doozy, complaining about going back to school and telling Earl and Mooch, “Nobody makes you do anything! Animals have it so easy in the world,” leading Earl to comment, “She has a lot to learn,” and Mooch to add, “Yesh.” That is in some ways a quintessential Mutts strip, showing a high level of sensitivity to animals’ needs and concerns while staying strictly within the bounds of comic-strip form and even offering a laugh, albeit a rather wry one. McDonnell sometimes overdoes the animal friendliness of Mutts, to the point of becoming preachy. But again and again, he offers readers experiences not to be found in any other comic strip. Playtime, for example, includes a hilarious sequence in which Mooch makes the whole strip disappear for several days, eventually managing to bring himself and Earl back – to Linus’ pumpkin patch from Peanuts. Now that’s magic, and so is Mutts – the magic of a true cartooning virtuoso.